Formal assessment - no place for compassion?

It never ceases to amaze me how everyday experiences outside the classroom make me reflect on my teaching; how things totally unrelated to the teaching context invariably point to what I do and what I'm like as an educator.

Earlier today I went shopping to the local supermarket. I'm a regular customer there and I tend to open my wallet willingly because they offer lots of discounts and enticements for kids. Currently, they're giving out Smurf stickers for every purchase equalling or exceeding 200,- Kč (Czech crowns). As logic suggests, a purchase worth 400,- Kč means two stickers, etc. And for 6 stickers the kid gets a plastic Smurf figure. So when I came up to the checkout and the cashier announced "200, -Kč", I rejoiced because I thought I had done a smaller shopping and that I'd leave empty-handed. I paid by my credit card and waited eagerly (my little son actually did) for the highlight of our little shopping 'spree'. Nothing happened though. So I asked. The cashier, a middle-aged, stern-looking woman replied that the receipt showed 'no sticker'. I, slightly bewildered, opposed. She grabbed the paper receipt and pointed to the sum reading 199.50, - Kč. "But you originally asked me for 200, - Kč", I retorted. She said: "But the receipt says 199.50. The cash register rounds off the sum". No "sorry", no "OK, here's a sticker so that your little son is happy", no "I know this is a silly rule but that's the way it is, but here you are", etc. I was shocked.

I really hate making a scene in public and I'm often more assertive than I should be but this time I did let some steam off. I didn't argue because there was no point, the rules are crystal clear, but I couldn't help grumbling and ranting on my way from the cashier's desk to the exit, so that everybody could hear me clearly. I wasn't angry about the rules; I was angry with the woman who didn't bother to show compassion. Yes, I expected her to circumvent the rules because I knew that other cashiers do this regularly - when they see a kid with the parent, they even give out more stickers than they should because they know many people don't care about Smurfs and they leave the stickers on the counter.

How is this incident related to teaching, you may wonder? Well, on my way home I thought of the assessment system and the way we evaluate learners. I'm a soft teacher, and whenever a kid gets a score just below the limit, e.g. when down to 90% it is still the highest grade but the kid gets say, 89.5 %, I invariably do what's in my power to give the kid the highest grade. I either check the whole test again trying to find half a point here or there, or I simply give the kid the highest grade (or an A- instead of an A+). Nobody gets hurt and the kid is happy and motivated to do better next time.

I'm convinced that this is what distinguishes me from a machine or a software program. Without trying to celebrate my super character or something, I really believe that this human touch means a lot in education. Grading is not always fair; in fact it's terribly unfair in most cases and for many students, so why not make it more merciful if need be. Nobody has ever complained that I'm being unfair. My students know that this narrow escape can happen to anybody in the class and the students who get 88% accept a B without further ado, even though they could grumble.

A final note: I'm well-aware of the fact that cashiers are terribly under-paid so they can't be bothered to do more than what's expected from them. I know I'm criticizing somebody for petty reasons. And I do fully realize that the fact that I got angry for such a trivial reason will ultimately make me regret it. I suppose I wouldn’t get a high grade for this kind of behaviour. But I'll try to do better next time ....